Fires force US to stretch for crews

A corps of 21,000 is battling Western blazes, but it includes firefighters from the military - and other nations.

William Quoetone has come a long way to fight fires. He and his fellow members of Kiowa 78 have traveled from southwest Oklahoma to fight the toughest fire in what may yet become the toughest fire season in a century.

Mr. Quoetone, a native American of the Kiowa nation, is a five-year firefighting veteran - and he's seen plenty of action already this season. The inferno at the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana is just the latest.

But if he finds a measure of satisfaction in battling blazes, people like him are getting harder to find. As a result, the United States has turned to New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians - as well as prison inmates, retired firefighters, and the US Army - to assemble a force big enough to match this year's fire challenge.

"We've got people with very different values," says Harry Croft, deputy director for fire and aviation at the US Forest Service in Washington. "They don't want to sleep on the ground, eat smoke, fight fires. A lot of them are environmentally minded, but a lot want to go home at the end of the day."

Indeed, the US simply doesn't have the number of dedicated firefighters it once had - a reality that quickly becomes apparent in a tough fire year like this one. Part of the reason is government downsizing, which has affected every federal agency. Part has to do with changing values, as fewer Forest Service personnel are willing to fight fires. Then there's the decade-long shift in federal policy to reduce timber harvesting on federal lands, a move that has had the effect of increasing the fire risk even as the size of the firefighting force dwindled.

But by hook or by crook, the government has assembled a respectable crew of more than 21,000, from all but two states. Even so, the 1.1 million acres that are currently burning - mostly across the West - are unlikely to be brought under control until the snows come.

Firefighters call seasons like this one an "Armageddon year," much like 1988, when 7.5 million acres were lost and 31 firefighters died in fires around Yellowstone National Park.

Some fire observers say that this season, with two more months of dry weather expected, may approach the granddaddy of fire years, 1910. That year, devastating fires in western Montana killed hundreds and led to America's first concerted fire-suppression policies. As of yesterday, eight people have died fighting fires this year; no fatalities have been counted among private citizens, but 175 homes and other buildings have been destroyed since late July.

With 250,000 acres on fire in the Bitterroot region alone, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot has declared the entire state a disaster area. Officials say their first priority is not fire suppression per se, but protecting lives and property. And now that late-summer winds are starting to pick up, experts warn, these fires have the potential to send embers up to a mile away, where they can start new fires.

The dangerous potential of this season is one reason the US has asked for help from far and wide. Fire crews have come from Australia and New Zealand, and in what is an unprecedented step, the US has let one incident command team from Canada be in charge of a major blaze on Skalkaho peak, just north of here.

"It's a lot different country than we're used to," says Len Munro, an Ontario-based information officer for the Canadian-led incident command. "Ontario, as you might know, is pretty flat." But aside from different acronyms, and a curiously American fondness for the imperial system of weights and measures, Mr. Munro says, "we're all doing the same job."

The heat and intensity of these Montana fires have taken some veterans by surprise. Tedd Reesman, a firefighter from Corvallis, Ore., remembers seeing a window that had fallen out of the window frame of a home. Instead of smashing on the ground, the window had melted to the contour of the rocks it had fallen on.

But what makes the job worthwhile, says Corvallis driver Brett Gregr, is the thrill of helping people. A few days ago, the Corvallis crew saved a man's home, after eight long hours. There were times when the flames were so high and so close that Mr. Gregr called to his spotter to see if the escape route was still open. But, says Gregr, "the house is still standing, and that feels real good."

In the towns of the Bitterroot Valley, from Hamilton to Darby to the tiny hamlet of Sula, the heroism of the firefighters has won profound gratitude. Typical is the sentiment found on a sign in front of the Victory Baptist Church: "Thank you fire fighters. We're praying for you."

Back at the massive Valley Complex base camp, the winds have begun to whip at the tents and clear away the smoke to reveal a gorgeous reddish sunset. Most firefighters here see the winds as a two-edged sword. On one hand, they clear the air enough for helicopters to drop their swimming-pool's worth of water on hot spots, but they also kick up flames and send embers downwind to start new fires. Already, a column of smoke on a distant hillside has turned into 80-foot flames visible four miles away.

Bob Kitchens, a Forest Service retiree, says, "It won't take a big wind event to make things spread. If we get a big one, it's going to be spectacular," he says candidly. "If we don't, we'll still have a lot of fires."

For Oklahoma's Quoetone, who has already been digging trenches and cutting line for three months in fires in five different states, there's no thought of going home any time soon. "We've had fires back to back to back," he says, taking a day off to rest at base camp near Darby. "It gets your adrenaline pumping, but you know, I'm a country boy. I like being outdoors and seeing some pretty mountains. And to get paid for it? Shoot!"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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